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Antiquities Exhibit Illuminates Ancient Afghan Trading

July 2, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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A museum exhibit of ancient Afghan art demonstrates the country's rich and diverse culture. Jeffrey Brown visits the relics that have survived the tumult of recent history in Afghanistan.
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JEFFREY BROWN: June 2004, Kabul. The bank vault in Afghanistan’s presidential palace is opened, and a metal safe brought out. Lacking keys, a worker takes a circular saw to open up a box that could hold priceless antiquities long thought to be lost.

Archaeologist and National Geographic fellow Frederik Hiebert was there.

FREDRIK HIEBERT, National Geographic fellow: I was worried. A circular saw had a lot of heat. If there was gold in there, was it going to affect the gold? What if there was nothing in there? What if somebody had already gotten in there, stolen the gold, and there was a little note saying, “Ha, we got here first?”

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, thousands of pieces of gold from the so-called “Bactrian hoard” were there and safe.

CURATOR: You can see actually there’s a piece of jewelry…

JEFFREY BROWN: And some can now be seen here, at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, part of an exhibition organized with the National Geographic Society called “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul.” It will travel around the U.S. through September 2009.

The 228 objects were excavated from four archaeological sites and together reveal a little-known land that stood at the center of ancient trade routes, while developing its own unique cultural blend.

FREDRIK HIEBERT: I think this is the most astonishing part of the exhibition. You look at these treasures from Afghanistan, from a country that you know only from the news as a land of terror, as a land of chaos.

And you look at these pieces, they’re gorgeous. They’re beautiful. They’re so familiar. You see iconography from Greece, from Rome, from China, from India. You say, “Wow, these things came from Afghanistan.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The oldest objects, from 2200 B.C., come from a Bronze Age site called Tepe Fullol. Little is known about the people who made these, but the images show they were in contact with ancient India and Mesopotamia.

FREDRIK HIEBERT: On these gold bulls, you see iconography that’s distinctive of the neighbors. But the gold itself was local, so we know now that Afghanistan had a role in international trade already 4,000 years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Objects from the second site show northern Afghanistan — then called Bactria — when it was a colony of Greece. The city of Ai Khanum was founded around 300 B.C. by followers of Alexander the Great. Most of these pieces were excavated in the 1960s and ’70s by French archaeologists.

A highlight is a ceremonial plaque in silver and gold, with Cybele, the Greek goddess of nature, riding in a chariot with the winged goddess, Nike.

Afghanistan as a mosaic

JEFFREY BROWN: The largest galleries in the exhibition bring the visitor into Afghanistan's role as a crossroads of the famous Silk Road, trade routes that ran from Rome and the Mediterranean to China and India. These ivory reliefs were used to decorate furniture including, as this video animation shows, a throne.

These objects were excavated in 1937 from a long-buried warehouse in the ancient city of Begram. Amazingly, most were found intact.

FREDRIK HIEBERT: This is really unusual in archeology. If we took a -- take a look at this fragile glass. That's 2,000 years old. You can see the pieces are intact. They're whole. Look at this glass.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, these were found -- these were found like this?

FREDRIK HIEBERT: These were found like this. These fish are typical of the Roman world. There are fish drinking glasses like this from other parts of the Mediterranean world.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this is a Mediterranean fish that washes up in Afghanistan?

FREDRIK HIEBERT: Of all places, in Afghanistan.

SAID JAWAD, Ambassador, Afghanistan: That's what Afghanistan is about actually. It is truly a mosaic of different cultures, countries, civilizations, languages, but yet it has kept a Bactrian or Afghan characteristics.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this exhibition, says Said Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., is a way of showing that identity to the world.

SAID JAWAD: For a lot of people, Afghanistan starts with the Soviet invasion or some of the recent violence. This is not the case. This country has been around for 5,000 years.

Objects survived modern Afghanistan

JEFFREY BROWN: But it is the recent history that makes this exhibition all the more striking, for as remarkable as the ancient history of these objects may be, their survival in modern times can seem miraculous.

Remember the Bactrian hoard? These thousands of pieces of gold were found in six graves at a site called Tillia Tepe, on and around the bodies of wealthy nomads.

But the year was 1979, just as the Soviets were invading Afghanistan, and archeologist Victor Sarianidi didn't even have time to finish the excavations.

Fredrik Hiebert, who would later work with Sarianidi, picks up the story.

FREDRIK HIEBERT: He actually had to go sort of incognito. He took his golden treasures, more than 50 pounds of gold, and he put it in paper bags and got on a bus.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paper bags?

FREDRIK HIEBERT: Paper bags, got on a bus, and went incognito back to the capital city. He quickly inventoried these objects. It was astonishing.

More than 20,000 pieces of gold were inventoried and then quickly hidden away in the National Museum of Afghanistan, not to be studied, not to be displayed. This was kind of an unusual moment for an archaeologist to find his greatest find and have to hide it away.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, hiding the treasures saved them, while so much else was lost. In the early '90s, the National Museum in Kabul was looted and shelled amid civil war.

FREDRIK HIEBERT: The National Museum lost its roof, lost its windows. When I first saw it in 2003, there was not a single artifact.

Restored museum to display the art

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, the Taliban systematically destroyed works of art, including the famous giant sculptures of Buddha at Bamyan in 2001. Everything, including the Bactrian hoard, was at risk.

SAID JAWAD: The criminals and the looters wanted to have in their hands for financial gain. The Taliban wanted to destroy these items because of their wrong ideological or religious conviction.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it was, in the end, a handful of workers at the museum who apparently saved what they could, in the vault in the presidential palace, in homes, and elsewhere, and kept it secret, even as the world assumed the worst.

SAID JAWAD: Any one of these gentlemen could have actually packed one or a few pieces of these artifacts and lived very comfortably somewhere in Europe. They didn't.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, this is now the great hope, that these, and so many other objects that have been looted and taken from the country, will be part of a restored National Museum in Kabul.

For now, even as Americans can study these treasures, the continuing political uncertainty in Afghanistan makes it impossible to predict when Afghans, young and old, will get their chance.